By Phil Marty, Special to Tribune Newspapers
8:42 PM EDT, April 23, 2013
MAGDALEN ISLANDS, Quebec — Old Harry Beach is marvelous.
It's at least 400 yards from the low dunes behind the beach to where the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence lap at the shore, and the powdery, light-tan sand caresses your bare feet as you walk.
Look to your right, and there are low, red headlands. Look to your left, and the beach stretches for miles.
If it weren't for temperatures in the 70s on this fine July day, you might think this was the Caribbean. Oh, and the fact that no more than 100 people are scattered along the vast expanse.
Even for someone who's not really a beach guy, this is a pretty great way to spend an afternoon.
The Magdalen Islands (Iles de la Madeleine in French, owing to the preponderance of Francophones here) invite that kind of attitude. The compact archipelago, virtually unknown to vacationers from the U.S., is part of Quebec, but it's nearer Prince Edward Island, 60 miles to the south.
Compact is the key word. The five main islands that make up the Magdalens are nicely tied together by Quebec Route 199, a two-lane road about 60 miles end to end. That makes it simple to sample the stores, galleries and restaurants of Cap-aux-Meules Island in the lower third of the archipelago and within an hour or so be exploring Old Harry Beach or hiking trails on Grande-Entree Island at the north end.
These islands, which Jacques Cartier visited in 1534, are made for bumming around, whether by car, bike, kayak or on foot. Heck, some of the locals do their bumming around by wind, we discovered one afternoon while driving the Dune du Havre aux Basques that connects Cap-aux-Meules and Havre-Aubert Island to the south.
Parked off the west side of the road was a mobile village of vans, pickups and cars out of which spilled an eclectic mix of kite surfers.
For an hour we watched them inflate large power kites, slip their feet into the bindings of their boards, hold tight to their lines and then go speeding across the water. Sometimes they went airborne, sometimes they crashed — all an obvious rush.
Down at Havre-Aubert later, we wandered La Grave historic site, the first settled area of the islands and today a laid-back collection of interesting shops, restaurants that make you think you're in France and galleries such as Artisans du Sable, featuring reasonably priced artwork crafted from the archipelago's copious sands.
Even the T-shirt shops here are unusual. No same old, same old from one shop to the next, but instead each with its own unique offerings.
One night for dinner, we popped into Cafe de La Grave, a noisy and fun T-shirts-and-jeans kind of place where an accordion player and drummer entertained the crowd with a mix of tunes, some paying homage to the islands' Acadian roots. In the mid-1700s, some Acadians fled here to escape the British expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia.
We passed on the seal flippers on the menu but enjoyed a good meal accompanied by a very good wine from South Africa.
Late on a Sunday afternoon in La Grave, we elbowed our way into Le Petit Mondrain, a restaurant/bar packed with Madelinots and weekend exiles from perhaps Montreal or Quebec City or Halifax, Nova Scotia. An Acadian band — fiddler and guitar and keyboard players — rocked the beer-swilling crowd that ranged from 20s to 60s with plenty of roots music, including a smoking fiddle tune reminiscent of American bluegrass classic "Orange Blossom Special."
But there's a lot more to these islands than musical mayhem, and sometimes the solitude makes it hard to believe this is peak tourist season.
One day we stopped in at Veli-Velo in Cap-aux-Meules, then spent the next few hours circling the island on rented bikes. Though we started on a bike path, much of the 20-mile ride was on little-traveled paved roads.
Another day, Fanny Arseneau of Vert et Mer, an eco-tourism company, took us on an easy hike through wildflower-studded spruce forests on Cap-aux-Meules to Butte du Vent, highest point of the islands at a modest 180 feet. The elevation gave us a complete view of the archipelago from north to south. As we hiked, miniclouds of small yellow butterflies sometimes took to the air, and Fanny told us about the islands' history, ecology and people, who these days number about 13,000.
Other days there was time for kayaking along beautiful, weathered red rocks, or a stop at a welcoming microbrewery.
And who could ever tire of walking the beach, flying a kite or just spending quiet time on the endless stretches of powdery sand? A fine way to spend a vacation, even for a nonbeach guy.
If you go
Getting there: Air Canada flies to the Magdalen Islands, but the flight may involve multiple stops. We flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia, stayed overnight, then drove a rental car to Souris, Prince Edward Island, about 41/2 hours, and took the CTMA car ferry (traversierctma.ca/en; starting at about $50 for adults high season) to the islands. You also could fly to Charlottetown, PEI, and drive to Souris.
Lodging: Quite a few options from basic to extremely nice, with information available on the Tourisme Iles de la Madeleine website (tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com). Note that there is virtually no handicapped access.
I wouldn't hesitate to stay again at any of our lodgings. Prices listed are for summer season, though most lodgings break down summer into three periods. Prices are per night and include breakfast (except at Chateau Madelinot).
Auberge Chez Denis a Francois, Havre-Aubert Island, 418-937-2371, aubergechezdenis.ca. Nicely done B&B with rooms from $115 per night.
Havre-sur-Mer, Havre-Aubert Island, 418-937-5675, havresurmer.com. Hands-down our favorite. Beautiful, secluded beach and impeccable furnishings and amenities. Rooms from $110, studios from $235.
Auberge La Salicorne, Grande-Entree Island, 418-985-2833, salicorne.ca/en. Very basic accommodations, much like in a U.S. national park, and your best bet is to go for a multiday package with breakfast, dinner and activities such as biking and kayaking.
Domaine du Vieux Couvent, Havre-aux-Maisons Island, 418-969-2233, domaineduvieuxcouvent.com. Beautifully restored convent with very nicely furnished rooms from $175.
Chateau Madelinot, Cap-aux-Meules Island, 800-661-4537, hotelsilesdelamadeleine.com. Seaside rooms with the feel of a U.S. motel. Very convenient to the ferry terminal. Rooms from $107.
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